The office sits on the bottom floor of Rockhurst High School, its contents resembling those in a museum, blended with some present-day necessities. The relics — an old projector and cans of 16-millimeter film— are talking points for the tour guide, 69-year-old football coach Tony Severino.
After reaching into his file cabinet, Severino pinpoints one of the reels of film on the top shelf.
The tape reads: Jefferson City. 1989.
“People still call this the greatest game they’ve ever seen,” Severino says. Then he points toward his iPhone, resting on the table, and adds, “You know, before you had those, this is how we did it.”
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There are generations worth of stories in this 200-square-foot office, told in pictures, trophies, letters and that film.
Severino has been at this for 48 years now, the last 35 at Rockhurst, and for the last decade his colleagues have been wondering just how long he can keep it up. He’s won nine state championships, including seven at Rockhurst. Later this month, he will be inducted into the Missouri Sports Hall of Fame in Springfield, an honor that can be best be described as, frankly, overdue.
It’s a career defined by wins on top of wins, championships on top of championships, and Severino remembers the details of every last one of them.
“My wife will get on me because I can tell you something that happened in a game from 1980,” Severino says, “But I can’t remember what she told me yesterday.”
Severino and his wife, Marilyn, will soon celebrate their 50th wedding anniversary. To this day, he often calls just to say he loves her.
With a laugh, he says that there are two locations in which a man settles down in life — where his job takes him, or where his wife takes him.
And that’s where this story really starts.
Severino and Marilyn met at Kansas State, where Severino played football. They left for Cleveland, Severino’s hometown, after graduation so he could begin a coaching and teaching career. But Marilyn was homesick for Kansas City, and it just so happened that Severino was offered a job at Shawnee Mission West as a defensive line coach.
In 1971, luggage in the backseat, they drove down State Line Road on their way to his new job, passing Rockhurst along the way. It reminded Severino of his childhood, when he attended an all-boys Catholic high school in Cleveland.
“I didn’t know Rockhurst from Adam, but I saw it was an all-boys Jesuit school, and so I told my wife that if we ever have sons and I can afford it, that’s where they’re going to go,” Severino says.
They had three sons. Each attended Rockhurst. And all played football for their father.
But he first established himself elsewhere. There was a stop at Shawnee Mission West, then a stint at Shawnee Mission Northwest that included his first football state title as a head coach. (He won a baseball championship at SM West.)
The Rockhurst job opened in 1983. Severino waited as long as he could — about an hour — before calling Rockhurst athletics director Al Davis in request of an interview. “What took you so long?” Davis asked. When Severino arrived at the school later that afternoon, Davis grabbed his arm, took him into the school president’s office and said, “This is our new football coach. Do whatever you can to hire him.”
Two years later, Severino was offered a college job on the Kansas coaching staff. He interviewed in Lawerence, and on the way back told his wife he would turn it down. He made a commitment to his kids.
Some 326 wins later, Severino has bypassed four college job offers, all of which included a raise. But he’s comfortable here. He’s part of the institution and largely responsible for one of the most successful big-class programs in Missouri history. He’s 326-85-1 in his tenure at Rockhurst, where he’s coached six NFL players. He was the 2000 USA Today Coach of the Year.
“I marvel at Tony. We all do,” Blue Springs coach Kelly Donohoe says. “I’ve always said that he just seems to have such a great relationship with his kids. He has a tremendous presence about him. He is one of the few guys in America that has done it for so long and done it so well. And you couldn’t meet a better guy.”
Severino has won eight football state titles, but he’s finished runner-up five more times and played in the state semifinals 19 times. Only twice has he suffered through a losing season, and just one of those was at Rockhurst.
And yet beyond the wins — or perhaps as a precursor to them — his peers talk about the immeasurable. He is a master of communication, they say. He opens every season by promising to treat his players fairly, even if he doesn’t treat them identically.
“I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him in a stressful situation where he loses his cool,” said Harold Wambsgans, who coached with Severino at SM West and is a godparent to one of his sons. “I’m sure he gets upset. I’m sure he has a bad day. But we never knew about it.”
There’s a stability to Severino’s personality, and there’s a stability to his methods. His practice routine has hardly varied through the years. Football is football, he will say.
“I watch our teams, and I go back 30 years, and our kids play exactly the same way they always have,” said John Morris, an assistant for Severino for the past 34 years at Rockhurst. “There’s not a day we do something at practice that these kids don’t know exactly what they’re supposed to do and the exact time they’re supposed to do it.”
About 15 years ago, Severino decided to implement the shotgun offense. He had never used it before. On the first snap, the center forgot the play was in shotgun formation and snapped the ball on the dirt. The opposing team recovered a fumble, and Severino erased the shotgun from his playbook.
Consistency works, he thought. Championship teams run the football. Championship teams stop the run. He has done some tinkering to that philsophy — the shotgun has returned, for instance — but only minor.
Here’s the thing: Severino’s opponents know what his teams are going to run. Yet they still struggle to stop it.
“When we see Rockhurst, we know we’re going to get blast; we know we’re going to get counter; we know we’re going to get sprint draw,” Donohoe said. “We know that at some point in the second quarter, the post (route) is going right down the middle of the field at us.
“But even if you know it’s coming, you’re still coaching teenagers and you still gotta have them coached up. And Tony is smart enough that he’ll see what you’re doing to him, and he’ll make adjustments.
“It’s always a chess match when you see him.”
Severino plans to keep coaching this fall.
A couple of weeks into the season, he will turn 70.
If consistency remains the objective, it’s achieved in theory but not completely in reality. There are some things his body will no longer allow him to do. In his first few seasons as a coach, he would put on the pads and helmet to demonstrate a drill. That’s not a part of his routine anymore.
But his communication with players is constant. His game-planning, his distaste for staff meetings, his insistence on giving his team days off during the weekend — none of that has changed, either.
“When I forget what it was like to be an 18-year-old kid, and when I run out of energy, then it’s time for me to get out,” Severino said. “I haven’t forgotten yet what it’s like to be a player.”
But his friends keep wondering how long he’ll coach. A few weeks ago, he received a call from one of them. It was a coach at another school, requesting that Severino take out a full-page advertisement in The Star to announce he planned to coach again in 2018. The coach was tired of the whispers.
For a decade now, Severino has faced that question. How much longer? And for a decade, he has provided the same answer. “Another five years.”
He’s finally wavered from that a bit, leading some to believe the end of his career might be near.
“I’m going to miss him when he does (retire),” Donohoe said. “That’s gonna be a sad day.”
Severino talks often of his former players. One is his financial advisor. Another is one of his doctors. He has coached some of their kids. These are the relationships he cherishes. He saves emails on his computer and hard copies of letters from former players. They keep him young, he says, and motivated, too.
Rockhurst cut back Severino’s teaching schedule this year to two classes per day. When he asked why, they told him they wanted to make it as hard as possible for him to leave.
“It’s gonna happen at some point,” Severino said. “I’ll know when. I’ve got 10 grandkids. There comes a time. It could be down the line. It could be tomorrow. Who knows? I’ve had a good career. It’s been a really good run.”